fb-pixelAt a Worcester workshop, designers improvise with fabric, plastic, and metal to ease life for people with disabilities Skip to main content

Meet the Massachusetts ‘MacGyvers’ customizing equipment for people with disabilities

Worcester is home to one of four “innovation centers” run by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where technicians can build and invent adaptive equipment to help people with disabilities. Technician Joey Watt works on a donated wheelchair, which will be rehabbed with parts from another wheelchair that allow the seat to be angled backward and forward.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

WORCESTER — Walkers and wheelchairs with missing parts or improvised upgrades crowd the floor of the workshop on the outskirts of Worcester.

At the facility, one of four Assistive Technology Centers run by the state, designers and technicians customize and adapt equipment, from shower chairs to iPads, to make them safer, more comfortable, or easier to use for people with developmental disabilities. The solutions can be as complicated as rebuilding a motorized chair, or as basic as laminating a cardboard box, as one of the adaptive equipment designers, Gabrielle Reis, discovered during weeks of trial and error as she attempted to build a tray for a wheelchair.

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“Some of the hardest situations have some of the easiest solutions,” said Reis, 30, of Boston.

Massachusetts is among the few states with facilities dedicated to devising creative solutions to accommodate the unique needs of people with developmental disabilities, according to officials with the state’s Department of Developmental Services, or DDS. About $2 million is budgeted annually for the program, though it has other funding sources, including insurance payments and donations.

Customizing medical equipment is often necessary, advocates for the disabled said. Bodies of different sizes and shapes don’t automatically fit off-the-shelf equipment. For example, the centers’ designers said one of their routine tasks is adapting equipment for people with one leg shorter than the other. Using equipment that isn’t customized can lead to discomfort, sores, or abrasions that can have serious medical consequences.

“They have a good reputation in that they do a lot of the good customization work not a lot of people do,” said Joe Bellil, vice president for public affairs and youth services at Easterseals Massachusetts.

The four centers, in Worcester, Northampton, Wrentham, and Danvers, along with a mobile team that serves the Boston area, handle almost 2,000 work orders each year, most often from DDS’s residential centers and group homes, though some projects are for DDS clients who live independently.

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At the center in Worcester, technician Nick Whitaker shows a standing wheelchair that he retrofitted for a client to be able to stand up in and do chores at home.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The centers evolved from in-house repair units in residential facilities, said Brigitte Casey, the centers’ statewide director, but have operated independently since the 1980s.

In Worcester, equipment includes a sewing machine that gets heavy use to upgrade pads and cushions, and a 3-D printer, a new addition designers recently used to make a plastic lock that prevents a person living in a residential facility from compulsively flushing the toilet. A wheelchair beside one workbench has a half-circle of tubing where footrests should be. The tube, used to chlorinate swimming pools, is flexible, resilient, and easy to replace, an ideal alternative for footrests that keep breaking.

Julian DerBogosian, 20, of Haverhill, has worked with staff at the Danvers workshop for 16 years, said his mother, Jennifer. He has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal, unable to walk, and has hips so stiff it’s impossible for him to sit.

“Julian is so unique; there’s not many of him,” Jennifer DerBogosian said.

His family transports him in a gait trainer with a saddle-like seat that doesn’t require him to contract his hips, but it causes painful pressure sores in his groin, his mother said.

Whitaker (far right) discusses with the staff some of the equipment that has been redesigned.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Keeping DerBogosian active is essential, his mother said, and the designers at the Danvers workshop are now adapting a motorized device that will allow him to lie on his chest but keep an upright position. It’s one of the most complicated projects they’ve tackled, staff said.

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The Danvers team is so essential to DerBogosian’s care, Jennifer said, the family decided against a move to California because that state didn’t offer a similar service.

“I could not live without them,” she said. “The whole reason I’m staying in Massachusetts is because we have this team.”

The majority of the centers’ clients are, like DerBogosian, nonverbal, and designers develop a history with those individuals, enabling them to learn to spot signs indicating whether an adaptation is comfortable or not.

“A lot of the times you can pick up on subtle body cues and things like that, if they like something or they don’t like something,” Casey said.

The 10 designers, five adaptive equipment technicians, one occupational therapist, and an adaptive clothing designer that staff the centers come from diverse backgrounds. Chadwick Shrum, 36, of Worcester, who works in that city’s facility, has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Nick Whitaker, 37, of ,Rindge, New Hampshire, also a designer at the Worcester office, majored in architecture. They share a passion for tinkering and creative thinking.

“All the ‘MacGyver’ and ‘Junkyard Wars’ I watched helped out,” Whitaker said.

In Worcester, Watt demonstrates how he used a swimming pool filter tube for a footrest on a wheelchair for a client who was in need of something other than the standard footrests.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Whitaker and Shrum showed off their latest project, a power chair that can lift its user, a woman who lives alone, into a standing position. She hasn’t had equipment that allows her to be upright in about 10 years, they said. The men are in the process of adapting a chair with new foot pads, a wider seat, and a belt to ensure she’s comfortable in an upright position.

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She has told the designers that she hasn’t been able to reach the upper cabinets in her home for years. His job, Shrum said, gives him the opportunity to see firsthand the value of his work.

“To see the joy on her face, it makes all the work worthwhile,” he said.



Jason Laughlin can be reached at jason.laughlin@globe.com. Follow him @jasmlaughlin.